This Week in the History of the Irish: March 19 - March 25

DOMHNAIGH - On March 19, 1921 Tom Barry and the West Cork Flying Column ambushed crown forces at Crossbarry, County Cork during the Irish War of Independence. The British had learned that the Flying Column’s HQ’s was in the Crossbarry area from a volunteer captured at the Upton ambush in February. Several groups of British troops from the Hampshire and Essex Regiments, over 1,000 total, from the Bandon, Cork, Ballincollig, Kinsale and Macroom area moved in, trying to surround and capture the entire group of Volunteers. There were slightly over 100 Volunteers in the area. As is often the case with such a complicated operation involving the coordination of several groups of troops, the timing was not good. The operation began in the early morning hours, with the troops going house to house, arresting all military-age men. Charlie Hurley, the commander of the Cork # 3 Brigade, who had been wounded at the Upton, was surprised in a house at 6:30am. He refused to surrender, wounding British Major Hallinen of the Essex regiment before being killed himself.

Barry, who had served in the British army in World War 1, had been alerted around 2:30 a.m. and roused his men. Quickly realizing from reports of British troops in several directions, Barry got his forces organized. Though he was outnumbered, the British were divided and he had the advantage of interior lines. They probably expected the Irish to run or take a defense posture, but Barry took the initiative away from them by setting up two ambushes with mines and attacking them. The first engaged the troops coming from the west in three lorries, routing them, with Flor Begley, an intelligence officer, playing traditional Irish war songs on his pipes as they opened fire. It was perhaps the last time the “war pipes” ever sounded in battle on the island. As the British survivors ran for their lives, the Volunteers burned the lorries. Barry's excellent positioning of his other troops allowed them to surprise and drive off the British in the other direction, as well. Barry was then able to consolidate all his troops and make their escape from the British trap. Encountering one more group of British, he had his entire 100-man unit fire a volley at them, scattering them.

It was one of the larger actions of the war, and one of the most embarrassing defeats for the British, who claimed they faced over 300 Volunteers perhaps to decrease their embarrassment, or perhaps that just reflected how well the Irish had taken advantage of their interior lines. The British admitted to 10 killed, though the Irish claimed they had killed over 30. The Irish had four killed. Barry had definitely proven himself a formidable guerrilla commander.

LUAIN -- On March 20, 1780, Miles Byrne, United Irishman and officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion, was born in County Wexford. He was active in the 1798 Rising in Wexford and fought all its major battles, right through the rebels' climactic defeat at Vinegar Hill.

(Right: The banner of Napoleon's Irish Legion)

He escaped to the hills and served with Michael Dwyer until the failure of the rising led by Robert Emmet, a close friend of Byrne, in 1803. Byrne traveled to France hoping to arrange for more French aid to Ireland, but after failing in that he joined the Irish Legion assembling in the French army. He had a long career in the service of France. Byrne rose to command a regiment and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. After his retirement he wrote his Memoirs, which were published 1863, a year after his death in Paris.

MÁIRT -- On March 21, 1763, William MacNeven, United Irishman, was born in Aughrim, County Galway.

(left: The emblem of the United Irishmen. It reads "Equality" above and "It is new strung and shall be heard" below.)

Educated in the medical profession in Austria, where his uncle was physician to the Empress, MacNeven returned to Ireland to practice in 1783. He was sworn into the United Irishmen by Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Arrested with most of the other leaders of the United Irishmen on March 12, 1798, MacNeven was imprisoned at Fort George in Scotland. Released in 1802, he traveled to France and for a time was an officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion, but departed when it was clear that the French would not be sending troops to Ireland again. Emigrating to the United States, MacNeven settled in New York City, where he had a distinguished career in medicine, worked among the growing Irish community there and also published several books. MacNeven died in the city on July 12, 1841.

MÁIRT -- On March 21, 1921, Irish Volunteers of the Kerry # 2 Brigade ambushed a train at Headford, County Kerry, during the Irish War of Independence. In many parts of Ireland, the war was increasing in intensity as the winter turned into spring. They had learned that a detachment of the Royal London Fusiliers would be traveling from Kenmare to Tralee, and would have to change trains in Headford. Commandant Danny Allman commanded about 30 Volunteers in the ambush. The British would have approximately the same number on the train, which also contained many Irish civilians.

Usually for the Irish railroad system, the train arrived earlier, barely over 10 minutes after the Volunteers arrived to prepare the ambush. Luckily most of the civilians had disembarked prior to the soldiers, but a few were still on the landing as the firing began. As the soldiers began to debark, the Volunteers opened fire with devastating effect. The British had a Vickers machine gun in front of the engine but the Volunteers were able to kill or wound the entire five-man crew manning it fairly quickly. Meanwhile the soldiers still inside the train's cars returned fire. It was a very long battle by the standard of the Irish War of Independence and the largest engagement in Kerry during the war. After about 50 minutes another train arrived carrying more British soldiers, and the Volunteers scattered into the countryside.

The British had suffered at least 8 dead and 12 wounded. The Volunteers had 2 killed, Commandant Allman and Lt. Jimmy Baily and, in addition, three civilians died in the crossfire and two others were wounded. Hardly a day had gone by in the month of March without some sort of attack by the Volunteers in some part of the island. The world was taking notice and the British government was starting to feel the pressure. 

DEARDAOIN -- On March 23, 1862, Irish-born Union General James Shields (left: pictured during the Mexican War) defeated Stonewall Jackson's Confederates at the battle of Kernstown, Virginia, during the American Civil War. Just a few miles south of Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley, a thunderous exchange of artillery fire around midday signaled the battle's start. At first, Jackson's men drove in the Federal line. Jackson had received a false report about the strength of the Federal forces around Kernstown, and he believed he was only facing a rear guard. In fact, Shields had 9,000 men there, outnumbering Jackson's 4,000 by better than two to one. About 3 o'clock, Shields' Federal forces counterattacked. When Confederate Brigadier General Richard Garnett's brigade ran out of ammunition, Jackson ordered a retreat, which precipitated a general retreat of the Confederate line. Jackson lost 455 men killed or wounded and several hundred captured. The Federals lost 553 killed or wounded and 23 missing. Although Jackson had lost this first major battle of what would come to be known as his Valley Campaign, his actions had already alarmed authorities in Washington enough for them to reduce the number of troops that they would send to Major General George B. McClellan on the Virginia peninsula. In the coming weeks, Jackson will exacerbate those fears. For Tyrone-born James Shields, Kernstown would be the pinnacle of a rather lackluster performance during the Civil War. Still, Shields would go on to become the only man to serve in the U.S. Senate from three different states, and how many of his colleagues in the Senate, or anywhere else, could boast of having once bested the great Stonewall Jackson in independent command?

SATHAIRN -- On March 25, 1846, Michael Davitt (right), revolutionary and agrarian agitator, was born in Straide, County Mayo. Davitt's family was evicted from their small farm when he was just a boy. After they emigrated to England, Davitt lost his right arm while working in a cotton mill at the age of 11. He joined the Fenians in the 1860s and served a typically brutal jail sentence. Released after seven years, he began what would be his life's work: agrarian agitation. Using funds raised by John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the United States, and allied with Charles Stewart Parnell, Davitt formed the Land League in 1879. This organization forced many reforms in the corrupt Irish landlord system. Davitt was a member of Parliament for a time in the 1890s, but resigned in protest against the Boer War. Michael Davitt died in Dublin on May 31, 1906.

VOICES

'About two hours had elapsed since the opening of the fight; we were in possession of the countryside; no British were visible and our task was completed. The whole Column was drawn up in line of sections and told they had done well.'
        -- Tom Barry on the Crossbarry Ambush

'Walking on bright winter days along the Avenue of the Champs Elysées, a tall erect figure, magnificent in old age . . . memories clouding at times his clear grey eyes; and through and beyond the battle-smoke and thunder of all Napoleon's fields he has a vision of the pikemen of New Ross and hears the fierce hurrah of Oulart Hill.'
        -- Ulster-born journalist and revolutionary John Mitchel on Miles Byrne, whom Mitchel met while living in exile in Paris.

We had no prepared positions and scrambled in to position as best we could. I was in a section commanded by Davit McCarthy. We were on the railway embankment with very little cover, but a good field of fire. I think most of the military were put out of action early on, but some two or three got down on the tracks under the train and kept up a continuous fire. No doubt they could have been dislodged, but a full train of troops entered the station and we had to withdraw.
        -- Denis Prendiville Kerry #2 Brigade on the ambush at Headford, County Kerry

National Museum of Ireland
Michael Davitt, one of the founders of the Irish National Land League.

'If the nationalists want me [the Irish farmer] to believe in and labor a little for independence, they must first show themselves willing and strong enough to stand between me and the power which a single Englishman, a landlord, wields over me.'
        -- Michael Davitt, giving voice to the attitude of the small Irish farmer toward Irish independence, December 1878

March - Márta

BIRTHS

20, 1780 - Miles Byrne (United Irishman, Officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion - Co. Wexford.)
21, 1763 - William MacNeven (United Irishman - Aughrim, Co. Galway.)
22, 1848 - Sarah Purser (Artist - Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin)
24, 1866 - Jack McAuliffe (Light-Heavyweight boxing champion - Ireland.)
25, 1840 - Myles Keogh (Capt. US 7th Cav., later killed at Little Big Horn - Orchard, Co Carlow.)
25, 1846 - Michael Davitt (Revolutionary - Straide, Co. Mayo)

SIGNIFICANT EVENTS

19 March 1919 - IRA volunteers raid Collinstown airfield (now Dublin Airport) outside Dublin and capture 75 rifles and 4,000 rounds of ammunition
19, 1921 - Tom Barry and the West Cork Flying Column ambushed crown forces at Crossbarry, Co. Cork.
20, 1920 - Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, murdered in his home by RIC.
20, 1868 – Dublin native George Cartwright, a Union Col. in the Civil War, dies in Charleston, SC.
21, 1881 - 'Peace Preservation' Act for Ireland legalizes special coercive powers.
21, 1914 - Curragh Mutiny - British officers refuse to move against Irish Unionists.
21, 1921 Irish Volunteers of the Kerry #2 Brigade ambush a train at Headford, Co. Kerry during the Irish War of Independence.
22, 1841 – Formation of the Irish Emigrant Society in New York.
22, 1921 - Irish Volunteers and Black & Tans engage in a gun battle at Lispole, Co. Kerry during the Irish War of Independence.
23, 1535 - Sir William Skeffington captures Maynooth Castle, stronghold of "Silken" Thomas Fitzgerald in one of the first recorded uses of siege artillery.
23, 1847 - Choctaw Indians collect money to donate to starving Irish Hunger victims.
23, 1862 - Irish-born Union General James Shields defeats Stonewall Jackson at the battle of Kernstown, Virginia, during the American Civil War.
24, 1922 - Owen MacMahon, a Catholic publican, his 6 sons and a barman murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in revenge for IRA ambush that killed 2 RIC officers.
25, 1634 - First Catholic Mass in English North American colonies celebrated in Maryland.
25, 1738 - Famous Irish Harper, Turlogh O'Carolan, dies in Alderford, Co. Roscommon.

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Tags: American Civil War, Europe, History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day

Comment by Kieron Punch on March 21, 2017 at 12:14pm

My Step-Great-Grandfather, James Lacey, from Castleisland, Co. Kerry, was Chief of Intelligence of 1st Battalion, Kerry No.2 Brigade. He took part in several ambushes but I do not know if he was involved in the Headford ambush.

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